Sunday, September 12, 2010

Glen Jean and the Whipple Company Store

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.”

In 1955, deep-voiced Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded the number one hit “Sixteen Tons,” a song about the hard life of a coal miner. West Virginia has a rich coal mining history and our West Virginia travels this past spring took us through the mountainous terrain of Fayette County, a traditional coal mining region.

We spent less than 24 hours in West Virginia, but we made the best of our short time there. After photographing the Glade Creek Grist Mill at first light (see our blog post dated May 9, 2010), Ruth said she had a surprise in store for me. On the way to this “surprise,” we stopped in the town of Glen Jean, which at one time was centered on the coal and railroad industries. Once the coal boom ended, the town began to fade away.

The only significant building remaining is the former Bank of Glen Jean, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. This bank was built in 1909 by William McKell, who owned one of the largest coal companies in the area and also a railway company that transported coal. The Bank of Glen Jean ceased operations in 1939 following the death of William McKell.

After eating our breakfast in front of this historic building, Ruth navigated us to an old Appalachian coal mining ghost town called Thurmond, which we will tell you about in a future post. After spending a couple of hours there, we headed to the unincorporated town of Whipple, which was also a coal town during the first half of the 20th century.

This was our first visit to a coal mining region, so we had never photographed any coal-related architecture before. When we pulled up in front of the Whipple Company Store, I was thrilled to see such an unusual building. In 1890, coal baron Justus Collins built this magnificent building and three others just like it. Today, the Whipple Company Store is the only one still standing.

As I was setting up my tripod across the road from the Whipple Company Store, which is also the home of the Appalachian Heritage Museum, a woman came over with a welcoming smile and introduced herself as Joy Lynn. She told me that she grew up in the area and had dreamed of owning the Company Store ever since she was a little girl. In 2006, her dream came true when she and her husband, Charles, purchased the building, which was in danger of being demolished.

When coal companies opened mines in an area, they built coal camps so that miners and their families had places to live near the mines. The coal companies owned the entire town and the company store served most of the needs of the mining families. Mine workers were paid in scrip, which was a type of money produced by the coal companies. It could only be used at the company store where prices were higher than at stores outside of the coal camps. Because of this, as time went on, families became deeper and deeper in debt to the coal company.

The Whipple Company Store is a fascinating place. It has a hand-operated freight elevator, a post office, a secret second floor, a hidden safe, and a third floor ballroom. According to Joy, the Company Store “sold everything from candy to caskets” and many bodies were embalmed in a mortuary in the basement. According to some accounts, the place is frequented by the ghosts of West Virginia coal miners. If you’re interested in learning more about this unique place, visit the Whipple Company Store website.

We’d like to thank Joy and Charles Lynn for their heart-warming hospitality in showing us the wonders of the Whipple Company Store. As Tennessee Ernie Ford used to say, "Bless your pea-pickin' heart!" and as we always say, Happy Shunpiking!


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